By Bhakti Larry Hough
During Black History Month, when I reflect on my African American ancestors who endured and survived slavery and government sanctioned racism in America and went on to achieve great things, I tremble.
As much as we talk about racial oppression in America today, we can only imagine the horrific circumstances under which our ancestors lived from their arrival here in 1619 until the middle of the 20th Century. Despite the hellish conditions of their existence, they not only survived, but many thrived. They may have bent, but did not break and set great examples of heroism that have inspired freedom movements and people of all backgrounds around the world.
When I think of Paul Robeson and his passionate commitment to the freedom and dignity of African American people that was so complete that he sacrificed the fame and fortune that his genius afforded him, I tremble. When I think of Harriet Tubman and her fierce determination to free as many of her people as she could via the Underground Railroad, I tremble. When I think of David Walker, a Black man who was free before Emancipation who could have played it safe instead of risking – and perhaps giving – his life to passionately advocate for the freedom of his people, I shudder. When I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, I tremble. I tremble at the thought of the fierce spiritual and intellectual force within them that would not allow them to settle for chains and undignified existence for their people; even though they knew they might sacrifice their lives in the process.
Then I look in the mirror and see that those people looked a lot like me; that generally, in addition to physical characteristics, we share the same cultural and racial bloodline, the same intolerance for oppression and injustice, the same indomitable spirit –and the same responsibility. Then I really tremble because I realize that as much as things have changed since their times, so much has remained the same, and I have work to do. People of African descent and people of color all over the globe are still being enslaved, oppressed, disenfranchised, and robbed of dignity.
I also realize that if there is ever to be true justice, equality and fairness for people of African descent and people of color in America and around the world, there must always be selfless and fearless visionary champions for human rights and freedom like Robeson, Marcus Garvey, Mary McLeod Bethune, Huey Newton, and A. Philip Randolph who devote their lives to the liberation of their people. This must be true because the quest for justice and equality is a never-ending mission. Oppressive and reactionary forces don’t take vacations from reinforcing their supremacy and concede nothing without demand. Self-determination and liberation cannot be achieved when the effort toward it is a part-time pastime as opposed to a passionate and determined fulltime preoccupation.
This is where I really tremble because I realize that the people like those named above are in short supply today. The passionate racial collectivism that these champions espoused and practiced wasn’t always appreciated by their fellow African Americans even during their generations. That’s because many of their people, especially during the virulent racism of the early-to-mid 20th Century, feared that these heroes’ vehement vocal opposition to the status quo would rain down the wrath of the white powers-that-be on Black people.
Yes, conditions have improved for African Americans in the country, the society at least takes a stab at racial justice and fairness, and Black people don’t have to make worry too much being lynched. What hasn’t changed, however, and is more prevalent now than then is a large percent of the African American population, especially those who feel that they have realized the American Dream, have abandoned or never adopted racial solidarity as a way of life. Instead, they espouse and practice a philosophy of individualism; I’ve got to get me, the African American race as a whole be damned.
The African American race is not a monolith, and there may be a place for individualism within a collective paradigm. But what many of the individualists fail to realize or ignore as irrelevant is that had it not been for the collective thought and action of those working for the whole, they would not have the luxury of choice to abandon their collectivist philosophies today. Every marginalized and disenfranchised group anywhere in the world that gained a measure of freedom and power had to become clannish, close ranks and do what was best for the tribe. They knew there was strength in unity and numbers.
Also, the individualists fail to understand the stark realities of racial and power dynamics in America today. Those dynamics, as brought to light in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, is that Black people in America as a group are never out of the political, economic and social woods, though a few may break free. Too many of us have been blinded by the media, bad education and bad religion, and don’t read and/or analyze, and think critically. Consequently, we fail to realize that despite gains, many of them are being eroded, that despite the fact that some of us enjoy wealth and live comfortably, most of our people are still struggling to get by and many are even suffering. This state of affairs is made possible by a fragmented and weak Black population hell-bent on assimilation and drunk on the Kool-aid of laissez faire capitalism which doesn’t truly serve us. Therefore, we have no critical mass of independent free-thinking leaders looking out for the best interests of the tribe and no real power to wield on behalf of all Black people in the affairs of the nation. This, I believe is a dangerous position for a beleaguered people still trying to realize any meaningful true power in a racist society that continues to toss crumbs to us from the table of plenty instead of making room for our rightful seat at the table. This is a dangerous position in a society where government and other institutions have demonstrated their propensity for retrenchment of policies, legislation and even Supreme Court decisions that have helped to level the playing field and provide fair opportunity for a people who have been cheated, disenfranchised, and tripped up at every turn.
Baby boomers who relax in a dubious comfort zone might be fortunate enough to live out their lives without too much trouble. But African American Millennials, and Generations Y-ers and X-ers don’t have the luxury of assuming that we’ve entered an enlightened age in which they don’t have to worry about being Black in America. At their peril, they believe that their talent, skill, and diligence will be enough to guarantee them fair opportunity in a racist society without the solidarity, advocacy and relative protection of a strong political, economic and social bloc.
A major part of what ails the individualists and the Black community as a whole is a pathological indifference to the gravity of what has happened to us, continues to happen to us, and will continue to happen to us if we don’t realize that we have distinct issues that require a sense of urgency and that we can’t expect non-Black people to care about to the degree necessary to truly liberate, empower us, and protect us from all kinds of harm.
That’s why I honor and revere our ancestors who sacrificed so much for justice and equality for the group. I realize that they acted not just for their generations, but for future generations – for me. I have them to thank for who, what and where I am as a Black man in America. That I stand on their shoulders and that I must make strong and square my shoulders so that my descendants can stand on them. I realize more than anything else that what I share with these heroes is responsibility – to them for the legacy they left me; to my contemporaries, many of whom aren’t as strong, courageous, and resourceful or otherwise blessed as I am; and to future generations.
We cannot afford to live and function in silos and watch our people languish in mediocrity, suffer and die physically, mentally, economically, politically, socially, and spiritually as if their plights are none of our business. No chain is stronger than its weakest link. When acting together, the chances of success improve for all of us. If we are to have a chance to survive what appears to be renewed racism and bigotry and thrive, every single one of us must accept our responsibility to do whatever we can with what we have in our own corners of the world -no matter how insignificant it may seem – to empower, uplift, heal, enlighten, and free our people, not just ourselves as individuals.
I take the responsibility seriously. I don’t always know exactly what is be done or how. What I do know is that – and history and contemporary times bear me out – whatever we do, we’ll have to do it together. If we hope to be successful in a way that doesn’t spit on the legacy of our ancestors and extinguish the torch they passed on to us and that leaves our descendents a solid foundation to build upon instead of a train wreck, we’ll have to do it as a people living by the philosophy of one for all and all for one.
I’m committed to doing my part by listening to the spirit of the God of my understanding knowing it will provide guidance and direction as I go forth to serve, heal and liberate the African American community, even as I tremble.